Virginia is the USA’s 5th biggest wine producer, here are our recommended wineries!
The year 2020 has held some major ups and downs for me, but there is one wonderful milestone it has witnessed. It seems appropriate that in October, otherwise known as Virginia Wine Month, I finally hit my goal of visiting100 Virginia wineries while visiting Stars in the Valley, a new (and tasty) winery that’s less than two years old.
People are often surprised to hear that Virginia is home to nearly 300 wineries and is tied for the fifth largest wine producing region in the United States. However, wine has been grown in Virginia for over four centuries, dating back at least to 1619. Now, I could go into all the history about Jefferson’s struggle to produce drinkable wine at Monticello or the (re)discovery of a native Virginia grape by Dr. James Norton, but my guess is that you’re really here to find a weekend escape with good friends, good wines, and good views.
One of the most important things to know about Virginia wine is that it will consistently challenge your expectations. It may seem obvious, but there is no single, universal way of making any specific type of wine. This is wonderfully evident here in Virginia. You may come across a chardonnay that is reminiscent of your Napa Valley oakey chards, that is to say tasting like a tub of buttered movie theatre popcorn, but then the very next chardonnay you taste may be a crisp, stainless steel with bright apple notes and no hint of butter or oak.
Basically, there is something for everyone: whites so sweet they’ll make your teeth ache, full bodied reds, wines made from other fruit, and more. My quest to hit 100 wineries truly started with wanting tounderstand more about the wines I like so that I could stop wasting money at the grocery store, but it grew into so much more than that.
As you’re out tasting, no matter where you are, be sure to pay close attention to some of the grapes that show the best of what Virginia has to offer: Chardonnay, VIgonier, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Norton, and Petit Verdot. Ask your wine educator their recommendations (and don’t forget to tip them!). Learn about basics like residual sugar and aging, as these will help you learn what to look for in the future. But most importantly, find what you like, and enjoy it!
The best wineries in Virginia
I hope to pass on some of what I’ve learned to you! After much humming and hawing, and countless hours spent looking at my Virginia wineries spreadsheet (yes, I have a spreadsheet), here are my favorite wineries across the state of Virginia!
Best overall: Michael Shaps Wineworks, Charlottesville Virginia
I first discovered Michael Shaps back in 2016 on a “Gals and Dogs” wine weekend in Charlottesville. It’s a slow meander up a gravel driveway, surrounded by light woods. You’ll actually have to drive straight past another winery to get there, but don’t get distracted, because what’s at the end of the path is definitely worth the wait.
Not only has Michael Shaps multiple gold medals in the prestigious Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition, he’s done so year after year. But what I love most is that his wine list is also the precise definition of “something for everyone.” Shaps makes wine both locally here Virginia and at his estate in Burgundy (for you old world aficionados). He makes boxed wine and wine for refillable growlers under a label called Wineworks that is meant to be high-quality yet also budget conscious — perfect for those of you who’ve needed a little extra calming during these quarantine times. He also makes a sweet dessert wine that is literally named Raisin (not to be confused with raison!) d’Etre.
If Charlottesville is too far away for you, Shaps also makes wine for a handful of other wineries, including Shenandoah Vineyards (off I-81) and The Barns at Hamilton Station (near Leesburg).
I highly recommend the following wines:
● Michael Shaps Petit Manseng: You absolutely have to try my favorite grape to be grown in Virginia. The Petit Manseng was historically grown in France to make sweeter or dessert wines, but here in Virginia, you’ll often find them dry and bursting with tropical flavor.
● Wineworks BOX Rosé: Shaps was actually the first Virginia winery to offer “boxed” wine, and like all of his wines, there’s an attention to detail that produces quality but this time at a lower price point. A different blend annually, this light, dry rose is guaranteed to be your summer favorite!
● Michael Shaps L. Scott: This luscious red is a blend of Tannat, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, and it’s well-balanced to provide a round mouthfeel that is smooth and velvety, making it the perfect wine for the coming winter months and the corresponding hearty meals.
Hidden Gem: Linden Vineyards, Linden, Virginia
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you all about Linden Vineyards, home to my other favorite winemaker in Virginia.
Thankfully recommended to me a few years ago by a friend in the industry, I’m now passing along this insider knowledge to you. Linden Vineyards is a hidden gem, located on a hill overlooking one of three vineyards that are the sole source of Linden’s grapes, nestled mere miles away from I-66, about an hour from DC. Without a sign drawing in traffic from the highway, Linden has focused on creating quality wines that speak for themselves. And boy do they!
Jim Law, the owner of Linden Vineyards, has built it into one of the pillars of Virginia winemaking. One of the older wineries in Virginia, Law broke ground nearly 40 years ago in 1983 and has been nurturing his vineyards ever since. He treats winemaking like an art form, and it’s truly evident in the outstanding wines that are produced year after year.
It’s evident from the moment you walk in the door. There’s an air of seriousness blended with appreciation. You’ll not find kids or dogs running under foot here, just fellow wine lovers, an incredibly knowledgeable staff. And some of the best wine in Virginia.
If you find yourself out that way, do yourself a favor and try some. Here are my favorites:
● Avenius Chardonnay: My personal favorite, that I remember years after tasting it. Avenius, named for one of three vineyards that produces all of the grapes for Linden, offers a minerality that complements nicely the fuller bodied nature of this Chardonnay. This tends to be more of a “Chablis” style Chardonnay in that it is well-balanced and not overly oaked.
● Claret: Now, if you’re like me, you may have thought that Claret was something that English gentlemen drank 200 years ago, but this one should change your thinking! Really, all a Claret is is a Bordeaux (often a red blend). If they still have it, I’d go for the 2015 vintage as it was a great growing season all around. It’s balanced and medium-bodied, and a great sipping wine!
● Best on a budget: Ox-Eye Vineyards is one of the few downtown tasting rooms I’ve visited in Virginia, but I dig it’s industrial vibe. You’ll find it nestled into an old brick storefront in Staunton, Virginia, a charming old town off I-81. They have an excellent list of wines in the $20 range. My favorite for the summer is their dry Riesling.
● Best Views: There’s a reason Pippin Hill Winery is a South Charlottesville favorite. You’ll see families and bridal showers meandering over their lush, gardened hills, making a day of being in this beautiful valley. They also have a vineyard-to-table kitchen that allows you to enjoy the most natural pairing of all: wine and food. My pick here would definitely be the Viognier.
● Best Organic: Nestled at the top of a rather steep gravel drive Arterra Wines is home to a winemaker who embraces a more minimalist technique, allowing the grapes to express themselves in the most authentic way possible. When you’re here, if it’s available, you must try their Malbec.
● Best Dog Day Out: If you’re like me, and you like a slightly slower pace, Muse Vineyards is the place for you. It’s low key, amazing wines, sedate hikes through vineyards, and you can take your furry friend right up to the tasting counter! While you’re there, don’t miss out on a classic Virginia varietal, the Cabernet Franc.